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5 stars

A beautifully rendered film that both personalizes the cruelty and haphazard nature of war and presents it in the broader context of national sacrifice and pride. Christopher Nolan depicts the evacuation of Dunkirk from the vantage point of the officers responsible for the endeavor, the foot soldiers desperate to get away, and the military and civilian rescuers who, with the Nazis having inexplicably failed to press their advantage after Blitzkrieg and the collapse of France, race to Dunkirk to save upwards of 400,00 stranded troops.  Nolan’s approach is tonally somber, underscored by composer Hans Zimmer’s minimalist, ticking clock soundtrack.  Nolan also alters sequence, which has the effect of giving the audience a feeling in line with that of the troops: a constant need to get its bearings.

This one won’t win any acting awards, simply because it is so sparse, but almost everyone is very good (in particular, Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance), and former teen heartthrob One Directioner Harry Styles is perfectly fine.

The lack of dialogue does not denote an action film.  It is visually arresting but never comes close to being exploitative or flashy.  Thankfully, Dunkirk is not in the style of war film that has become the standard of late – brutal, unremitting and loaded with gore, always looking to surpass the hellish set pieces of Saving Private Ryan (Hacksaw RidgeThe Pacific, Fury).  Rather, it is meditative and as such, a great deal more effective.

 

There are very few films that deal with the concepts of faith and even fewer that tackle religious faith.  Modern audiences probably could care less about religious faith, and Hollywood cares even less than the audiences, given the short shrift the town affords religion.  Though after Mel Gibson’s masochistic and extremely profitable The Passion of the Christ, Hollywood saw money in them thar’ hills and started to make treacly “miracles on earth” fare, serious engagement is rare.

The Apostle is one of the few films that actually explored the limits of faith and the working of religion in a modern context.  It is a masterpiece.  The Exorcist, another classic, is generally known as The Daddy of Shock Gore, but in fact, it is a deep and complicated story of hell on earth, and the perils of believing that such a hell doesn’t exist among us.  Most recently, Calvary fit the bill.  That’s about it.

Martin Scorsese has co-written and directed a fourth masterpiece, which has much in common with the prior three films. The Apostle gave us Robert Duvall as a fallen minister who has to rebuild from the ground up after having turned his back on his belief and his community.  The Exorcist, while ostensibly about the demonic possession of a little girl, is really about a fallen and broken priest (Jason Miller) and his own test of faith.  Similarly, Calvary offered Brendan Gleeson as a modern Irish priest living in his own Gethsemane, attempting to withstand the assault on faith by near every denizen of the town he serves.

Silence, which was almost entirely ignored by the the film community, centers on two 17th century Jesuit missionaries (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who secret themselves to Japan in search of their mentor (Liam Neeson), rumored to have apostatized.  As is their calling, when they arrive, they immediately begin to minister to and convert Japanese peasants, for which the punishment is severe and faith-shaking.  Garfield wrestles with the consequences of his actions, and his discussions with the Japanese Inquisitor and his translator (Issei Ogata and Tadabanou Asano, respectively) are enlightening yet fraught with danger.  They are trying to break Garfield, who convincingly plays as a man of his time, showing all of the anguish and compassion attendant to his situation.  He is bedeviled even more by the appearance of his guide  (Yosuke Kubozuka) who consistently betrays him and other Japanese Christians, only to ask for confession, an absolution Garfield finds increasingly difficult to give.

This a gorgeous, meditative film, and Scorsese eschews his hallmark of dizzying and inventive camera movement for a simpler, more staid approach.  The effect is classic and contemplative.  Garfield, who was nominated for the overpraised Hacksaw Ridge, is mesmerizing.  One of the best from last year, and woefully overlooked (it received a nomination for best cinematography).

An unsettling and very smart film, writer-director Tom Ford (A Single Man) autopsies the relationship of Susan and Tony (Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal) while recounting a murder story.  The former is seen in flashback, as Adams, a successful, chic but deeply unhappy art dealer, is presented with her ex-husband’s novel as a prelude to their meeting after a long separation.  That relationship blooms as most do – with fire, unwavering support and the feel of having found a soulmate.  It is eventually undercut by Gyllenhaal’s lack of sophistication, emotional instability and the fact that, as Adams’ patrician mother (Laura Linney) wickedly tells her, “he’s too weak for you.”  As Linney deliciously explains, “Come on, Susan. I know you think that we don’t care about the same things, but you’re wrong. In a few years, all these bourgeois things, as you so like to call them, are going to be very important to you, and Edward’s not going to be able to give them to you. He has no money, he’s not driven, he’s not ambitious. And I can promise you, if you marry Edward, your father’s not going to give them to you either.”  As Adams sits in her classy LA house, a living embodiment of her mother’s prediction, she awaits her reconnection with Tony and starts to read his book, an engrossing tale which ends in a chilling act of brutality that seems directed right at Adams.

The performances are astounding. Since Zodiac and through Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal exudes a compelling mix of sincerity and if not menace, danger, it’s hard to take your eyes off of him.  Adams is properly fragile and haunted, with a lacquered face that evokes a cracking shell.  Linney’s one-scene turn is for the ages, and the contributions of Michael Shannon as a taciturn Texas lawman and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as his frightening quarry are riveting.

Ford has crafted an original, intricate form of noir that is unnerving and unmannered.  Likely not everyone’s cup of tea, but I can’t remember a film I’ve concentrated on as much as this one for some time.  It was one of the best from last year.

Image result for 20th Century Women

An affecting confluence of nostalgia and deep emotion born of human connectedness, this film presents as a standard coming of age tale, but it is a great deal more.  We find 15 year old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zuman) growing up in Santa Barbara in the late 70s with his idiosyncratic mother (Annette Bening, a mix of traditionalist and free thinker), who raises him in a home in which she rents out rooms to people who will eventually become instrumental in his upbringing.  Her cockeyed plan at the outset is to rely on one of her renters, a feminist photographer (Greta Gerwig), and an older neighbor teen (Elle Fanning) to teach her son how to be “a man.”

Bening beautifully renders a woman grappling with her own doubts, confusing times (she is referred to as a daughter of “the Depression” by her son as if she has an illness, and at one point she notes, “I think history has been tough on men.  I mean, they can’t be what they were, and they can’t figure out what’s next”), and the establishment of her own values (my favorite of her observations is “Wondering if you’re happy is a great shortcut to just being depressed”).

There are too many pitch-perfect, smart scenes to recount, but some merit mention, particularly the scene where the house handyman (Billy Crudup) who – having been deemed an insufficient role model because he and the boy do not connect – signs on as Bening’s guide to the culture, and in particular, punk rock. When Bening and Crudup, who is a bit of a hippie, attempt to dance,  first to Black Flag and later to Talking Heads, the result is a joyous rendering of representatives of two distinct tribes trying to understand the totems of a third.  The scene is almost as funny as when Gerwig insists that everybody at a house dinner party not only acknowledges her period, but says the word “menstruation” out loud.  And Fanning’s advice to the boy after he corrects a neighborhood kid boasting of his sexual prowess with a dissertation on the mechanics of the clitoris (for which he catches a beating) is both cruel and exceedingly wise.

In the wrong hands, this film would be a series of snappy vignettes, one more quirky than the next, and the result would likely have been cloying and unsatisfying.  But writer director Mike Mills never slums for your laughs or tears, and he stitches together the experiences of the characters seamlessly through the process of brief biographical snippets.  Better yet, he has a strong sense of what is authentic, and the film is loaded with grit and heart.

Some will accuse the picture of dragging, but I felt it simply took its time, allowing the feel to make the same deep impression as the dialogue, and nothing felt gratuitous.  One of the best from last year.

This review was written by an old friend and sparring partner under the nom de plume “Pincher Martin” from a chat room I have contributed to for nearly 20 years.  It is an accurate reflection of my feelings on the film and a great write-up of an overlooked and underrated picture.

“Over thirty years ago, I was living in LA and found myself one day in the San Fernando Valley, lining up to see a movie in one of those mall cineplexes that were common at the time. I forget what made me drive over to San Fernando from Westwood, where I was a student living in an apartment, but whatever it was, I know it didn’t have anything to do with the movie I ended up seeing.

I had heard nothing about Manhunter. I’d read no reviews of the film. I’d seen no ads for it. It wasn’t considered a big film at the time. I knew nothing about Michael Mann, the film’s director, who was just some guy known for his work on the new TV series Miami Vice, a show I didn’t watch. I also knew nothing about William Peterson, the star of the film. While several of Peterson’s co-stars in Manhunter would later become familiar to movie-goers (Joan Allen, Brian Cox, Dennis Farina, Tom Noonan, Stephan Lang), I knew nothing about any of them when I walked into the theater that day. The movie had a cast of unknowns to me.

But it wasn’t uncommon for me at the time to go see a movie on the spur of the moment whenever I had a couple of free hours, and so it must have been some serendipitous event that allowed me to see that day what I now consider to be one of the best films of the nineteen-eighties and one of the best cop films I’ve ever seen.

I loved the movie immediately, and I’ve not changed my mind about it over the last thirty years. I was transfixed by the story I saw on the screen that afternoon. The small movie theater was almost empty (a scene which must’ve been replicated all over the country, since the movie did poorly at the box office), but I didn’t care. Certain scenes in the film made such an impression on my young mind that I could still remember them in detail years later, although I did not have a chance to watch the movie a second time until many years later. Even scenes that were not particularly important in advancing the plot left an impact on me that afternoon because of their aesthetic appeal

I still remember, for example, the blue tint used in an early scene showing Kim Greist and William Peterson as they lay in bed at night with the black-blue ocean behind them. It’s simply breathtaking.

Manhunter was based on the novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, who would later become famous for writing The Silence of the Lambs, which became the way most people were introduced to the character Hannibal Lector, either through the novel or the film.

But Manhunter was my introduction to Hannibal Lector, and it was an intro which later made me lukewarm about Anthony Hopkin’s more celebrated portrayal of the character. Brian Cox’s Hannibal was very different from Anthony Hopkins’s. In his short stint as the character, Cox played Lector with more believable directness, suaveness, and quickness of mind, and with none of Hopkin’s annoying affectations.

Manhunter has perhaps the best scene I’ve ever seen of what I’ll call a realization by the protagonist.

This scene never fails to astound me. It’s one of the few times in a Hollywood action flick that you can see a character thinking through a problem and coming to a realization in a way that seems almost believable. (L.A. Confidential is one of the few other films with this feature which comes to mind.)

The scene, which unfortunately is cut in some versions of Manhunter available today, lasts over seven minutes and involves just two characters – Will Graham played by William Peterson and Jack Crawford played by Dennis Farina. Listen to how the music gradually and quietly enters the film’s soundtrack at about the five-minute twenty-second mark on the youtube video, building up to enhance the tension of the moment when Graham realizes how Francis Dolarhyde, the serial killer named “The Tooth Fairy,” is picking his victims.

Manhunter has several remarkable scenes showing FBI agents at work. They’re seriously done, following Thomas Harris’s careful research for his novel. Mann, however, is too obsessed with his own visual style to hew too close to reality. He dresses his agents up more as if he’s thinking of letting them put in appearances on Miami Vice than he does for the real work of the 1980s’ FBI. But it works.

Some critics claim that Manhunter was a precursor of the TV series CSI, which also starred William Peterson, and later branched into a franchise of similar TV shows. I’m not sure that’s the case, but it’s an interesting theory. It’s probably true the movie must’ve helped Peterson more than a decade later when he won the starring role in the first CSI TV show. The movie and the TV series had a similar way of looking at evidence.

Whatever its influence, the movie’s reputation has skyrocketed over the last three decades. After bombing at the box office in 1986, the movie is something of a cult classic today ( 94% on Rotten Tomatoes). Most likely, this had to do with the commercial and critical success of The Silence of the Lambs, which came out five years after Manhunter. The Silence of the Lambs is an excellent film, but in many ways I prefer Manhunter.

Brett Ratner would later release his own cinematic version of the novel Red Dragon in 2002 with a more faithful rendering of the original story. I think it was a mistake.

Manhunter is the superior film in almost every respect. It deviates from the novel in ways which improve the story for film; the acting is better; the soundtrack/music is better. Only in the editing of the final scenes and a few other details is it inferior to Ratner’s fim.

The plot in the novel Red Dragon is too complex for a feature film. Mann in Manhunter wisely chose to focus on the chase – without the need for the complex twist at the end. But Ratner’s Red Dragon made the mistake of trying to emulate the complexities of the novel rather than streamline the story for film.

As far as the acting, Red Dragon has the more acclaimed cast. At least on paper. Anthony Hopkins, Ralph Fiennes, Edward Norton, Emily Watson, Harvey Keitel, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Mary Louise-Parker are all celebrated in their profession, with multiple Oscar, Golden Globe, and BAFTA awards and nominations from their peers.

But Ratner didn’t get much from these names. Hopkins was too old. Fiennes and Norton were miscast. Ratner chose to play Mary Louise-Parker like she’s smart trailer trash. Watson was not bad in the blind role, but Joan Allen was better. And Stephen Lang is better than the soporific Hoffman as Freddie Lounds.

Anthony Hopkins is a superb actor, but he was a glassy-eyed 65-year-old actor in 2002 when Red Dragon came out. He had lost the menace he possessed more than decade earlier when The Silence of the Lambs was released.

Brain Cox, on the other hand, was excellent in his short stint as Hannibal Lector. He underplayed the menace with more believable suaveness and quickness of mind. Perhaps that’s because Cox was only forty-years-old when he played the role and so much more alert-looking than Hopkins, who sometimes seemed like he was battling astigmatism whenever he glanced in the direction of the camera.

Mann gets so much more out of all his actors. Peterson is more convincing as Graham than is Norton, who sometimes comes across more as if he’s a depressed professor rather than a haunted cop.

Tom Noonan was a revelation as Francis Dolarhyde. That character requires a large, strong, ugly man to play the role, whereas the somewhat effete, handsome Fiennes is simply not believable in it. His voice is too affected, even when he damps it down for the role. (This is an excellent example of how a classically-trained Brit actor can’t fit into just any role an American actor can do.) Noonan is a huge man who looks like he could be a serial killer.

One can’t compare the two movies without mentioning the soundtrack of Manhunter. It’s one of the best soundtracks in a feature film I’ve ever heard. I bought it and listen to it on some of my playlists. And yet the music was criticized by movie critics as too synthetic when the movie was first released. (Go to Youtube to listen to the soundtrack. It’s stupendous.)

Manhunter has become a cult classic for a reason. The movie was unfairly neglected by movie-going audiences and maligned by movie critics when it was first released in the theaters. (For what it’s worth, the novel was also unfairly neglected by book readers when it was first published.) But the success of The Silence of the Lambs got Manhunter another look from both critics and audiences, and that second viewing has allowed the film to be reevaluated to its proper stature.

13 Things You Never Knew About ‘Manhunter,’ the First Hannibal Lecter Movie

2) For the lead role of FBI profiler Will Graham, the filmmakers considered Nick Nolte, Richard Gere, Mel Gibson, and Paul Newman. Mann ultimately went with Petersen, after seeing him play a relentless sleuth in 1985’s “To Live and Die in L.A.”

3) For the part of Hannibal Lecktor (yep, that’s how it was spelled in the script), the producers thought of John Lithgow, Mandy Patinkin, and Brian Dennehy. It was Dennehy, however, who recommended Cox.

Mandy Patinkin as Hannibal Lector?  Interesting choice.

Read items #8, #9, and #10 to see just how tight the budget was on the movie. They explain why the end of Manhunter was so poorly edited.

Prior to seeing Moonlight on Saturday, my two “best” pictures for the year were the rousing, throwback to old Hollywood musicals La La Land and the deeply affecting, painfully human Manchester by the Sea.  Last night, Moonlight inexplicably (and awkwardly) won best picture, and I have to say that in the three horse race (actually, four, because Hell or High Water is every bit the film as these three), I would have been happy with any coming out on top.  Moonlight, however, distinguishes itself from the others in a few critical ways.

First, let’s put La La Land to the side, not with short shrift, but simply as a “which one of these doesn’t belong and why?” entrant.  I’m still captivated by Damien Chazelle’s light and vibrant revival of the Hollywood musical, but it is a different animal and one that I think suffered from an early over-exuberance that gave way to more serious and deeper fare, as well as a time-worn presumption that LA would be unable to resist rewarding itself (with the assistance of Price Waterhouse and a befuddled Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, LA almost pulled it off).

Hell or High Water was a sneakily political film with rich turns and deep roots , but ultimately, it was a heist and manhunt pic; Jeff Bridges was a derivation of the Tommy Lee Jones character in No Country for Old Men; and the film was as much about desolate Texas as the characters hurtling towards each other on its dusty roads.

So, my eggs were in Manchester’s basket.  Casey Affleck’s tortured yet reserved and meticulous performance was one of the best I’ve ever see on film, and Kenneth Lonergan’s depiction of what a family means in its whole and then in its shattered parts, along with its stubbornly non-Hollywood ending and countenance, sold me.  Best film of the year.

Then, Moonlight.  The story of a young black kid (Chiron) from Liberty City wrestling with not only a forbidding environment but his own sexuality was tender and poetic.  Also, I found it just a tad more interesting, in that it depicted a world and a struggle not often covered in film, and it elevated restraint and finesse to its highest form.  While not as moving as Manchester, in part due to a more ambitious and necessarily distracting style, the films are very similar in capturing a character at different stages of his life, changed by trauma and haunted by doubt.

The film is also blessed by numerous strong performances.  Though nothing approximating Affleck’s turn, the three actors who play Chiron as a boy, a teen and later as an adult all were deserving of the Best Supporting Actor nod given to Mahershala Ali, who plays the Cuban crack dealer who puts Chiron under his wing.

The quiet, unhurried moments in the three non-musicals are the ones I found most impressive, moments where you filled in the blanks and never felt even nudged to a conclusion or resolution.

I don’t know which of these films is the best of the year, but they are all great.

A haunting, mournful yet cautiously optimistic film.  As with You Can Count on Me, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan depicts family like no one else.  In this family, the protagonist is Casey Affleck, a Boston janitor so emotionally stunted he struggles to maintain a personal conversation longer than a minute, seeking outlet in drinking and getting his ass kicked. He is forced to return to his home town of Manchester due to tragedy, and while there, must confront his unforgiving past.

It’s hard to say enough about Affleck’s performance.  He is required to do so much with so little emotion, yet in a wince, a stare, or a wry smile, he imparts more than he ever could with pages of overt dialogue.  He is ably matched by Lucas Hedges (both are nominated), his teenage nephew, who has been placed in Affleck’s care for a period of time.  Kyle Chandler, as Affleck’s  older brother, exudes responsibility and vulnerability.  Yet, despite the lack of real familial relationships, these three actors seem as if they are indeed brothers. The scene where the adult Chandler and Affleck won’t stop goofing around during a dire time at the hospital (much to the frustration of Chandler’s wife and their gentle, peacemaking father) is foreshadowing for a later rough, jokey and conspicuous dialogue between Affleck and Hedges.

Lonergan provides no easy resolution or pat answers. He stitches the pain of the past in his characters very tightly and eschews melodrama. I kept expecting to be overwhelmed by a moment or a revelation, but really, the entire piece is quietly, almost stealthily moving, a studied portrait on loss and family and life.

I still have a few flicks to see, such as Moonlight and Hacksaw Ridge, and I was over the moon for La La Land, but as of now, this is the best film I’ve seem from 2016.

One nit.  The score, by Lesly Barber, which is orchestral with a lot of strings, and is at times affecting, is at others intrusive and overstated.  In such a restrained film, this was off-putting.